Saturday, January 18, 2014

Literacy in 2014: What Does it all Mean?

Before I begin I would like to share some statistics with you that create a context for this particular topic. Last year 12.477 billion Google searches were conducted monthly. Sixty six percent of those searches were conducted in the United States. Global web traffic dropped by forty percent when Google had a five minute outage. Seventy nine percent of libraries have online databases and seventy eight percent of them use social media as part of their online presence. There are 1.15 billion Facebook users, 500 million Twitter users, 500 million Google+ users, and 238 million people on Linkedin. There are over one billion unique monthly visitors to YouTube every month. Lastly, twenty three percent of marketers employ a social media specialist or blogger and forty six percent of web users turn to social media for making purchases.

Whew! Now that I have given you all of those facts, we can safely agree that the world is very different today than it was when adults were going through school. However, there are some fundamental elements that cannot be ignored no matter how far we advance. We can never move past good old fashion literacy. Literacy is simply, the ability to read and write proficiently. There is not a soul who would argue that this is not important. However, if you need proof that this is a skill that is in constant need, read the Facebook posts on your timeline for about two minutes. Schools across the nation are working on this daily and in reality are having increased success in recent years with literacy. However, this kind of literacy is not the purpose of this particular blog.

We now face a new type of literacy that must be taught in schools. We must teach our students 21st Century literacy skills along with literacy. Think about that for a second. We have changed so drastically in the last 25 years, that we have to teach a new kind of literacy (not to be confused with computer literacy, the ability to function on a computer, which has been taught for quite some time now). You could argue that the last time such a HUGE shift in need for literacy happened was in the 1450's when Johannes Gutenberg printed the bible on his printing press causing a shift in the way people learned. We have entered into a generation of students who have to be taught differently than we were, or quite frankly, we will fail them.

 Twenty first century literacy has a number of levels. However, one of the most important is the new information literacy. Information literacy is the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand. We are inundated with information. You saw the statistics on Google last year. There is nothing that we can't look up to find the answer to. In fact, I wasn't going to say anything, but I had to confirm I was correct in my year for the Gutenberg Bible. However, this is not just a positive outcome. There is a negative side to such a fast moving current of information. Overload of information typically leads to a decline in value. In other words, we have to sift through thousands of resources when in reality, a large portion of them may be very poor resources. We have to teach our students how to quantify and qualify sources rather than just look it up. We have to teach our students that "googling" alone is not research but only part of the equation.

What to do with the Information
Another skill we have to teach in 21st century literacy is the ability to make sense of the information that they find. It used to be that we would be challenged to memorize information and become the authority on a subject based on how much we knew off the top of our head. This is no longer the case. We have to teach students that it is not so much what you remember, but what you can do with the information that you find. In essence, this is teaching student critical thinking rather than rote memorization. We should be teaching students that they can find all the information in the world, but if they cannot use that information practically and productively, it is no good to them.

Can our students articulate their research to others through presenting and writing? There is not a more important job skill today than to be able to communicate information once acquiring it. This is step two of the process. Once they learn how to research, they can use the information productively online or in person.

Social Media
Another layer of twenty first century literacy is the ability to use Social Media. I am not talking about following Justin Beiber on Twitter or posting pictures of cats on Instagram. I am talking about the ability to market, organize, analyze, and receive information on social media. This is usually one where many roll there eyes, but if you think that social media literacy is not relevant to students today, you should watch the news, or better yet pick up a newspaper....If you have one, it is probably lighter than it was 10 years ago.

The reality is that there is a productive, academic, and useful side of social media. Our students know from a young age but it is our job to teach them how to properly use it. I compare it to teaching students to read novels vs teaching them to color within the lines. I believe there will prove to be a correlation between students who start using Social Media productively at a young age and those who do not. Social medial literacy should be taught in schools If we don't teach them, nobody will.

This is a complicated issue that probably deserves more writing than this short blog. But the facts are there for us. Our job is to prepare young people for success and teaching them these skills are what it is going to take in 2014. You would be hard pressed to even find a University that does not have a huge online database of academic journals. In fact I don't think there is one. We should continue to teach students the love of reading (I still read hardcover books) and the excitement of a trip to a library. But we need to address the fact that there are more layers to their literacy than there was when we were in school. We don't have to throw the baby out with the bath water, we just have to use a new and better kind of soap. Leading is Teaching.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Measuring Success One Student at a Time

There are many different ways in which school success is measured. There are schools who receive accolades and recognition for high test scores. There are schools who thrive in the performing arts and music department. There are schools with AP and IB programs that prepare leaders of tomorrow. And there are schools in which athletic programs perform at a high level and send students to universities every year. These are all great aspects of school success and should be celebrated within the communities in which they exist and beyond. However, what is the measure of a great school? One could make an argument for all of these at any point in time, but I feel strongly that none of them are the definition of what truly makes a great school.

The systematic and successful effort to reach, engage, connect, counsel and prepare every student for life within and life beyond high school is what makes a great school. Now that may seem obvious to some and oversimplified to others, but let me explain why I even bother to state the obvious. Everyday, while some students are performing well on AP exams, receiving scholarships to universities, winning awards in FFA contests, and playing music in prestigious concert halls, many students are floating through their schools days with no direction or self-esteem. While one student may be working long hours to be involved in extra curricular activities and maintaining a 4.0, another gifted student is underachieving immensely. Great schools see these trends and take action. Great schools see the gifted students, the under performing students, the emotionally detached students...The list goes on and on.

Now don't get me wrong, there has been some significantly improving in this area nationally. The graduation rate has risen significantly in recent years. Schools have been held more accountable for things like dropout rates which were at 11% in 1990 and have dropped below 7% in the last couple of years. The No Child Left Behind era, all politics aside, did do at least one thing, it shed light on some large voids in the American Education system. Since then, dropout rates across the board have decreased and that is a very encouraging things. However, dropout rates are not exactly what I am referring to. I think that great schools are doing everything they can to maximize the students who are still within their walls.

There are students on every campus who have the ability to perform in class and participate outside of it that are not being reached. High stakes testing in a lot of schools has inadvertently turned students into numbers and shifted the focus from "whole student teaching" to test preparation. Students testing well and students testing low have been given the most focus, while students in the middle who may very well be gifted have been overlooked because of the demand to be recognized as a "high achieving school." Well the good news is I believe this trend is changing.

Great schools see the value of each and every student and strive to connect them to their school. Student involvement outside the classroom and relationships with the teacher are the most important aspects of reaching this goal. If a student, has an established relationship with an adult on campus who is invested in them, they are more likely to succeed because naturally they will want to make them proud. Students who don't have teachers, administrators, bus drivers, coaches, secretaries, or maintenance people who care for them and talk to them on a regular basis are more likely to remain disengaged. So how does a school ever come close to engaging every student without the ability to force them into doing their work and participating in extra curricular activities. Well.....

Schools leaders should keep track of the interests and participation of each student. They should know who is in every club or sport, and they should know what their regular activities are. Then they can begin to target students who are not engaged and find teachers who can relate to them and get them connected. We should know our staff and be able to match them with students who are they are most likely to connect with. It will take every person on staff whether it be classified or certificated but it needs to be an organized and relentless effort. Because all it takes is the attention and interest of one adult to inspire a student to get involved. And this could literally save a life. This is not a perfect formula, but if we are not doing this as a school then we are not interested in engaging Every Student.

I believe that implementing this kind of organized and strategic way of connecting with students will enable more schools to become great. We are not solely in the business of developing doctors and lawyers. We are in the business of developing successful community members, husbands, wives, moms, dads, leaders, and healthy kids. We cannot sit back and rest on our awards, scores, and recognition, while students are struggling for purpose within our walls. We need to fight for each and every one of our student. We will inevitably lose some, but if we pay attention and work hard to connect with each and everyone, our schools can truly be great. Leading is Teaching.

For more on how a school can implement this process, email me at

Thursday, January 2, 2014

To Present is to Succeed

The ability to present well in front of a small or large crowd is one of the most important skills one can have. Think about all of the successful people you know in any field and chances are, they are someone who presents well. This doesn't necessarily mean that they are on a lecture circuit, giving a sermon to hundreds of people, or a game show host. They come from all walks of life but the commonality between them all is, successful people are able to articulate their competency and the point they are trying to make well. These people can be shy, incredibly social, funny, or charismatic. It can be delivered in many different ways but their presentations are solid because they were trained and they practiced somewhere along the way to success.

This skill has never been more important than now to teach our students. In today's market, a college degree or training does not always equate to a good job and today's jobs are changing so rapidly that even specific training in a particular field can prove to be out dated quickly. So what does this mean for our students? It means they need presentation skills even more than we did at their age.

Our students should be able to stand in front of others confidently, while conveying to their audience that they know what they are talking about. And even if they don't, they need to display their passion, intelligence, competence, and eagerness to be successful. However, the old school presentation model will not work. You know what I am talking about; student stands up, opens the PowerPoint, reads the text flooded slide, and asks if there are any questions to the half asleep audience. This cannot continue.

We need to have our students research their topic well and take notes that will help them master the content they are reading. We should have them learn techniques to minimize text, maximize the effectiveness of their oral delivery, and engage the audience at a high level. In other words, we have to teach them how to sound and look like they know want they are talking about. It takes time, but there are not many skills that will be more relevant to our students.

The key to the best presentations is the passion behind it. The person speaking should be interested in the subject that they are speaking on. We must find topics and approaches that engage our students. If they make a connection to their topic, the crowd will pick up on it. Not all of the topics will be ground breaking but if we get our students to buy in, the practice will be more effective and lead toward building that classic passion filled delivery.

So, there is one missing piece from my advice. How do teachers refine their skills and become masters of the presentation? We must present in professional settings as often as possible. This could be in staff meetings, college classes, conferences, workshops, and community/school events. I believe that a staff who regularly presents professionally is a staff that preforms at a high level with their students.

In the era of increasingly available technology, we have to ask our students to present on a more regular basis whether big or small. We can't wait till the end of the year. It has to be part of our school and classroom culture. We should be asking them to present by themselves and with others. As a result, they will be able to market themselves more effectively as they enter he work place or apply for colleges. If we successfully implement the art of presenting and story telling in our classes, our students will be confident, competent, and bound for success. Leading is Teaching.